Often we create stories about our ancestors which paint them in the best light. We tend to forget this is our perception of how life should be, not theirs. Many of our ancestors belonged to a distinct underclass. Sometimes we get hints of this in census schedules, newspaper accounts, church registers and court records. What were their lives really like?
The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)
One priceless work which provides a window into the world of the illiterate and semi-literate underclass is the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811). It remains in print and online. This work defines terms which were in usage among these common people throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland. However, helping to place your ancestors in a historical context, this A-Z dictionary is worthless unless you already know the word.
I have created a glossary from this 1811 resource focusing specifically on the industry of prostitution and its related word whore. This dictionary reveals how the common people spoke of prostitution, thought about it and utilized it as a service. I have left out terms for madams and pimps as that seems to be almost a class higher being a business person.
The Complex Usage of the Words Whore and Prostitute
As I was compiling this dictionary, I realized by the very language used, prostitution itself was a graded industry. The more discriptions added to a term actually lowered a woman on the scale of perception. This makes both the terms prostitute and whore more complex than I even realized. They were definitely more complicated in 1811 than they are today.
Historically, a prostitute had to do with money and applies almost exclusively to women. A prostitute was also one who was either engaged in selling sex themselves or through someone else. Alternative words would include harlot from 1610 and strumpet which dated back to the 1300s. Prostitution is an institution even if the word itself does not necessarily focus on “sex for hire.” It can just as easily be “exposed to sex indiscriminately offered.” Another context was using oneself or another for money in an unworthy or suspect cause, which did not involve sex. An example would be someone selling a talent.
The term whore can also be used in reference to a prostitute. However, its usage was more complicated. For example, it references a promiscuous woman or man. One can “consort with whores” or be “out whoring all night.” Another usage can be to “make a whore of” which would mean to contribute to debauching someone (male or female). A whoremonger was a man obsessed with having sex as often as possible. In some usage a whore was equated with an adulterer.
While the exchange of money may or may not be involved in whoredom, the principle is similar to prostitution in that to “be a whore” or to be “out whoring” can become prostitution or the purchasing of sex. At that point, the word whore also became tangled in with strumpet and harlot. Whether calling someone a whore was better than calling someone a prostitute seems to have been a matter of perspective. It’s important to read words in the context being used in a given document.
Which Word was Worse Prostitute or Whore
My assumption is that in 1811, in certain usage, a prostitute was worse than a whore because the word whore was more ambiguous encompassing women and men involved in paid sex and unpaid sex. Yet, in other usages in 1811, whore was a straightforward derogatory insult. So much of this discussion has to do with in what context both words were used and how many additional descriptive words were added to them!
When attempting to understand old terms and dictionaries, it’s always important to place the author in a historical context. In this case, an educated man living in a world of early nineteenth century values. This means the source has preserved for us insight into how men, both educated and uneducated viewed common women.
In Part 2 of this blog, I will be presenting my glossary of terms from 1811 and provide a little more insight into how I saw the terms graded. Plus, I’ll introduce you to the worse word of all in 1811.
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